Living in a rural place was an exercise in accepting death. Speeding cars and trucks killed dozens of wild animals on the county road at the top of our property; I murdered pests to protect our crops; I killed chickens for food. None of this prepared me for burying my nine-year-old dog, Phynn.
A couple days after Christmas in 2006, I had gotten home from work around 5:30. After changing into “on the farm” clothes and boots I commenced to chipping ice from the path between the garage and the house. I’d had a stressful day at work, and driving the ice chipper into the ground over and over felt really good. Phynn was running around, enjoying the snow. Like any farm dog, she didn’t go far from the house, so when she saw I wasn’t going to play and abandoned me, I thought nothing of it.
Phynn was a smart, good dog. She didn’t chew up our shoes; she didn’t steal food; she stayed off the couches. She understood peeing outside the first day she came to live with us, at eight weeks old. You could speak to her in full, conjugated sentences. She left children and chickens alone—not because she didn’t want to bite them but because she understood we didn’t want her to bite them. She was up to any challenge—skiing, hiking, swimming. She was a good friend.
If Phynn was misbehaving, it was usually in the Forbidden Field. This small triangle of land was stranded by circumstance, belonging neither to us nor our neighbors but to a nearby gravel business. A glorified embankment off the highway, it was often the final resting place of deer and other animals that were hit by cars. It’s hard for a dog to ignore perfectly good roadkill just on the other side of the driveway. This wasn’t dangerous for her, just unsanctioned.
Phynn had been visiting the Forbidden Field a lot that fall. At first she was disappearing for twenty minutes or so, and then returning to the house to collapse on a rug with a bloated belly (I talk about this in Get Your Pitchfork On! in the “Country Dog Fun” chapter). One day, she brought home a nice, gory foreleg. Soon after, she had this odd-shaped thing that smelled like she’d extracted it from Satan’s anus—part of the spine. By that point, snow was falling and the deer was probably too decomposed to bury anyway, so we didn’t try to find it; we just scolded her and confiscated the pieces as they appeared. But she continued to visit.
What happened next is anyone’s guess—maybe there were living deer in the Forbidden Field and she started chasing one. Maybe a coyote ran her off the carcass. Maybe she ran a coyote off the carcass. In any case, while I was clearing our walk Phynn took the liberty of climbing up to the highway.
After a while, I called for her. I was ready to go back inside and make some dinner. Mike was still in Portland, visiting friends who’d had a baby.
It was unusual for Phynn to ignore me. I walked up the driveway a bit and called her, figuring she was debauching herself once again with this carcass. Highway 141, being a country road, is pitch-black at night, and we happened to live on a tight curve that elicited jake-braking from all the log trucks that rounded it.
I called for her again and listened. I heard a ka-thunk; the sound of someone throwing a good-sized stick at a car.
That couldn’t have been her, I thought. But, deep down, I knew it was. Shock set in immediately. I checked the other fields and then walked back to the house, intending, I think, to get a flashlight. Not thinking straight, I grabbed a penlight, one that could handle no bigger job than to change a fuse. When I got to the top of the driveway, it didn’t even illuminate the ground at my feet.
It would have been foolhardy to investigate further. Cars whooshed by at 50 miles an hour; their headlights whirled past me on the curve and their tires raised a cloud of dirty spray. I recalled that the wife of my neighbor, Pete, was struck and killed not twenty feet from where I stood, when she went after one of their donkeys that had gotten loose. I was afraid to take another step.
Maybe that wasn’t Phynn after all, I thought. Maybe she’s in the woods, or at our neighbors’. Though she never went into the woods or to our neighbors’ without us, I walked back to the house, made some soup and waited for Mike to return. When he pulled down the driveway and I didn’t hear her barking, dread resurfaced.
“Where’s Phynn?” Mike said when he came in the house. I told him what I knew.
“I saw something on the road,” he said slowly.
He paced while I finished my soup, but, really, there was no hurry. We already knew. We put a couple of towels in the truck and crawled up the driveway. I scanned the shoulder. Nothing … nothing …
There she was, lying on her side in the icy gravel. Mike carefully pulled in front of her and put the hazard lights on. We walked behind the truck. In the flashing red lights, I could see that her tongue lolled out of her mouth; yet another country thing I’d seen in cartoons as a kid and hadn’t considered actually happens. She was, mercifully, intact—no car had run over her and she hadn’t been there long enough for scavengers to get at her. Her eye was open and glossy black.
Cars occasionally whizzed by, slowing slightly when they passed us. We put Phynn’s stiff body on a towel and then hoisted her into the bed of the truck.
In the garage, we discussed where to bury her. I put a towel under her mouth to collect the blood that had leaked out, and examined her. Her back legs were bent in a run. I tried to collapse her front legs so it would be easier to bury her; one was broken.
We carried shovels to the top of the field. The soil, which set up like concrete during the summer, was mercifully pliable after all the rain and snow that had fallen. Only the very crust was frozen. The air was cold and clear.
We went back down to the garage and carried Phynn up using the corners of the towel she lay on. We took a couple of breaks on the way up the hill; the load was bulky and the snow slippery. Nothing interrupted the silence but an occasional car swinging around our bend in the road.
We put Phynn down next to her grave. I lay in the snow for a while, sobbing and petting her neck, until my legs became numb with cold, and then we laid her in the ground. We walked down to the quiet house.
The next morning, there was one perfect set of paw prints on the deck in the frost, facing the door, as if she had spent the night waiting for us to let her in.